For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve.
The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames.
The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.
The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.
Djinn Quilt (by Saskia Lammers)
In my youth I visited a town whose name translated from Arabic is ‘The Flower that Swallows the Desert.’ At present it lies in Oman, yet resides within the disputed territory between that country and the borders of The Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and so at moments in history has belonged to all of these nations, and to others whose names have vanished into antiquity, and which are seldom spoken outside the mumbling circles of scholars and theologians.
The town falls along the migration pathway of a great many species of birds who leave its buildings spattered in droppings that exude a pungent odour. When the rains come in late summer, the seedpods mired in the dried on excreta crack open; fine roots find purchase in the sheer mud-brick walls and the town erupts into a fragrant oasis. The wooden trellises that, for 11 months of the year, cap the roofs like barren church steeples, are engulfed by the rising tendrils of climbing roses. Within a few days the buildings appear to have gained ten feet in height. The thin curved thorns that guard the slender branches of these creepers are harvested and employed as needles in the weaving of djinn quilts, which are said to protect resting desert travellers from the attentions of demons and evil spirits.
The town is equally famed as the last known habitat of Poplin’s Moth, which is the size of a small owl and is known to attack men and livestock. For centuries its narcotizing venom, administered with brushstrokes from a pair of broadly feathered antennae, and absorbed by the nervous system through the skin, has been employed as a sleep draft. It is now used in hospitals as a surgical anaesthetic.
Another noted resident of the town is the Catbird – more widely known as the Giant Arabian Sparrow which is easily domesticated and can be trained to catch mice.
I arrived in that emerald of the desert by shared taxi, in the moist fug of a humid August afternoon. Then one morning, a week later, opened the shutters of my room to a blast of arid heat and saw the town wither before my eyes, shrinking once more back into the dry dust.